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A HIGH Court judge has recommended that a senior East London magistrate be removed from the bench after she recorded a guilty verdict and prison sentence in an assault case – while the case was still in progress.
In citing a number of bizarre interventions by East London magistrate Larney Opperman during the trial, Eastern Cape High Court Judge Jeremy Pickering said it was “abundantly clear” that she needed professional help for alcohol or drug dependancy.
In an unprecedented special review, Pickering said that proceedings in the April 7 assault trial of Mandlenkosi Blaai of Mdantsane were not conducted in accordance with justice.
The case against Blaai was set aside and will now have to be continued before another magistrate.
At one stage, after the complainant in the case had said that Blaai had pointed a finger at him, the record of proceedings read:
Opperman: “So I can point you with a finger and I am guilty of assault, I am?”
Answer: “I may say that he was disrespectful.”
Opperman: “All right, I am going to adjourn and I am going to get inspector Turnsey to come for you to lay a charge against me.”
Answer: “I won’t do that your worship.”
Opperman: “Oh he will. He is here to see to the safety of the court is maintained and if he sees that I am committing a crime, he can close down the court.”
Pickering, whose findings were supported by High Court Judge Clive Plasket, said Opperman’s conduct during the cross examination by Blaai’s lawyer “was somewhat eccentric”.
In a letter to chief magistrate Valerie Gqiba, attorney Khaya Nguqo later described how he had, during an adjournment, noticed on a court document that Opperman had already recorded a guilty verdict and 18 months imprisonment for his client.
“Due to this premature conviction and sentence I reasonably believe that the accused will not get justice from this court being presided over by the same presiding officer.”
Pickering said a grave injustice might have been perpetrated had Blaai not been represented by Nguqo, who had seen the court document.
He said Opperman also wrote that the case was not reviewable by a judge.
Pickering also noted that in affidavits by deputy chief magistrate Fanie Stander and control magistrate Nazeem Joemath, it was mentioned that Opperman was later assisted from her office to her parked car.
Both magistrates said they later found her in the passenger seat, unsuccessfully attempting to open the door and in the process activating the alarm.
Stander said after a police officer opened the door for Opperman it was clear to him that she was heavily under the influence of either alcohol or a narcotic drug and in no condition to drive the vehicle.
He and Joemath took her home. There were two bottles of alcoholic drinks in her car.
Stander said Opperman required professional help.
In his affidavit, Joemath said Opperman was a competent, capable and hardworking magistrate.
He was, however, aware of her personal problems and struggle with alcohol.
“In her current state she is an embarrassment to other presiding officers … she should not be placed in a position to preside over any matter until she has overcome her problem.”
Gqiba said she had already ordered that Opperman, as Pickering also recommended, be removed from the bench. She also referred the matter to the Magistrates’ Commission and an independent KwaZulu-Natal magistrate, Jan Venter, had since investigated the matter.
“We are now waiting for a report from the commission,” Gqiba said.
Gqiba said she was not concerned there may be other cases presided over by Opperman in which justice may not have been served.
“Usually magistrate Stander reads through all the judgments. Unless someone brings a specific case to our attention I am not worried about that,” she added.
In her response, Opperman said she had suffered various family losses during the past three years. She had also gone through a divorce.
“I was completely burnt out – trying to run a home, do my job and look after my son. Physically I was burnt out, and mentally anguished. I was on anti-depressants to help me cope.
“On that particular day I had not slept or eaten and was not feeling well.”
She was later booked off work for stress. – By EDDIE BOTHA, Investigations Editor